Royals rising with Hosmer in Wild Card chase
Among team contributions, first baseman's re-emergence vital to KC's aspirations
On June 5, Eric Hosmer had a .259 average, a .313 on-base percentage and a .325 slugging percentage.
On June 5, the Royals were 24-32, dead last in the American League Central and a seemingly safe bet to have another irrelevant season in the standings.
Team game that it is, baseball doesn't lend itself to the simple storyline of one player carrying a club on his back or anything of that nature. But the clearest and most conducive line that can be drawn from the Royals' lackluster start to their current placement in the Wild Card pursuit lies within the steady rise of Hosmer these last three months. They've gone on quite a run, and Hosmer's surge certainly hasn't hurt.
"Contributions from everybody are fueling it," manager Ned Yost said. "Our great pitching, our great defense, the way that we run the bases. He's a big part of it, though."
To remember those June 5 numbers and see where Hosmer is at now -- a .304 average, a .357 OBP and a .450 SLG -- is to understand how truly long the 162-game season is and also to appreciate how much Kansas City's late-May switch in hitting coaches did to target the organization's primary position player prospect.
"Be Eric Hosmer," George Brett told Hosmer when the Hall of Famer joined the club as co-hitting coach with Pedro Grifol. "Just be you."
Brett knew as well as anybody what it's like to struggle early in your Major League career, and he has long credited hitting coach Charlie Lau with changing just about every aspect of his stance and swing to eke a Cooperstown-worthy career out of a less-than-stellar first season-plus in the bigs.
For the 23-year-old Hosmer, the adjustments that needed to be made were less mechanical and more geared toward preparation -- what it took to get him going to the plate confident, with a clear objective and a clear understanding of what the opposing pitcher was trying to do against him. That's where Grifol proved particularly helpful.
"Me and Pedro have created a routine we stick to every day," Hosmer said. "I just have to make sure I'm right with my timing, that I'm early and on time. Basically, if you do that, the mechanics will follow. So that's our main focus, is being consistent with the timing."
Hosmer didn't want to fundamentally adjust his swing, as Brett once did, because he had already enjoyed success with it at this level. After joining the Royals in early May 2011, his progress loosely followed that linear path prescribed for the game's most highly touted talents: Hosmer had a monster first month, a second month full of adjustments from opposing pitchers and then a strong second half, capped by a .349 average and a .917 OPS in September. At that point, we had every reason to believe Hosmer was going to be the prototypical first-base bat Kansas City could build its offense around.
Then came the sophomore struggles of 2012, when Hosmer's numbers across the board -- he finished with a .232/.304/.359 line -- took a tumble, undoubtedly influenced by his low .255 batting average on balls in play. It can sap a player's confidence to see so many hard-hit balls go for naught.
When those struggles lingered into 2013, it became fair to wonder if Hosmer would ever tap into his true potential. What we didn't know was that he was nursing a sore hand those first two months of the season, an injury that didn't stop him from suiting up but did sap his strength. There was also the fundamentally unfruitful mindset of trying to go to the opposite field with everything. Brett had to hammer home the point in Hosmer's mind that it was OK to pull the ball and, again, be yourself.
"You haven't seen the real Eric Hosmer this year," Brett promised in early June. "You might have seen glimpses of it in the past, but you haven't seen the real thing."
Perhaps we have now. Hosmer's slash line since that June 5 low point is .328/.381/.518, with 15 homers, 22 doubles and 58 RBIs in 90 games. More to the point, he has seized the No. 3 spot in the Royals' lineup and brought a measure of respectability to what had been an alarmingly unproductive offense.
Kansas City's wild swings this season are not what you'd expect from a club with such a capable pitching staff and stellar defense. It's the inconsistency of the offense that has led to these head-scratching stretches -- 17-10 to start the season, then 6-22, then 11-2, then 9-15, then 19-5, then 2-10. It was the final game of that 2-10 stretch when Hosmer took over the No. 3 spot for good. In the time since, the Royals are 13-5. That's not what you'd call a coincidence.
"We've been playing really good baseball," Hosmer said. "We took some tough losses, bounced back the next day. It hasn't affected us too bad. As a team we've been pretty good about sticking to the day-to-day approach and not getting ahead of ourselves. As long as we focus on winning that game that day, by the end of the year we'll be where we want to be."
Could Kansas City, a team whose postseason percentage possibility was calculated by Baseball Prospectus as 0.9 as recently as Tuesday, really reach the playoffs this season? Don't dismiss it, as the Royals entered Thursday's off-day two back of the Rays for the second AL Wild Card spot with 16 to play. Since that aforementioned June 5 date, Kansas City has the third-best record in baseball (.593), trailing only the Dodgers (.682) and Red Sox (.602).
The baseball world might take the Royals and Pirates making the playoffs in the same season as a sign of the apocalypse, but, more accurately, it would be a sign that long-standing rebuild plans are finally reaping rewards. With Kansas City, arguably no single 2013 development -- especially on the heels of the Wil Myers trade -- looms as large as Hosmer discovering his comfort zone, because he means so much to the club's offensive future.
"I never lost confidence," Hosmer said. "I've just been feeling good lately. It's a long season, and you're not going to get it back in one day. You have to take it at-bat by at-bat. Whatever the situation brings you that at-bat, you've got to play it out and help the team win."
Hosmer keeps hitting, the Royals keep winning, and late September in Kansas City is suddenly a lot more interesting than it's been in a while.